Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I haven't dropped off the face of the earth, tho I haven't been in this space for a while. Much has been going on, some of it not so good – bad, heart-rending even – and some of it just plain busyness. Some work has gotten done, & other things have been left undone.

I sense Culture Industry may be at a crossroads. That is, my always-divided attention may finally have stretched to the breaking point, so that something has to give. Or this may just be another hiatus. No, I'm not migrating full-time to Twitter. After a bit of dabbling in that medium, I realize that I'm simply not all that interested in coming up with 140-character pithinesses. Even the sometimes joyous give-&-take of Facebook has seemed kind of spastic lately, a poor substitute for sitting down and talking to someone face to (non-virtual) face, or for thinking one's way thru a problem on paper or screen.

And Ba'al help me, I've become official. That is, after 15 years of avoiding administrative posts like the plague, I've accepted a position of responsibility in my department, one of those jobs that looks nice on the resume & gives one an illusory sense of power & dumps a dozen new emails in one's lap every morning. Is it kosher for the Director of Graduate Studies in the English Department of Our Fair University to maintain a blog that badmouths eminences in the academy & the government? That muses awkwardly on literary & cultural issues? Heaven knows I've been embarrassed enough times by grad students quoting or paraphrasing something I'd offhandedly tossed off in this space, & a couple of times I've intemperately given away the talking points for an entire seminar half a week beforehand.

Even the conversation on the blogosphere, as lively as it remains, has for the moment lost its luster. Perhaps it's time to hunker down, sift thru the papers that need sifting thru, & issue an occasional communique. So consider this a brief wave from the bunker.
Update 3/30: Reading this, what looks like Ron Silliman's farewell the blogging platform, actually nudges me in the direction of wanting to write more in this space.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

reading notes: pound, hulme

I have just now finished Richard Sieburth's newish (2010) edition of Pound's New Selected Poems and Translations (New Directions), &, like Elohim thru that first stretch of Genesis, I pronounce it good. Very good indeed. From a pedagogical point of view, this is now the standard Pound text: all of the significant shorter poems, great lashings of Cantos, & excellent explanatory notes. Sieburth includes a fascinating appendix detailing the history of earlier Pound selections, including the crunky old Selected Poems (New Directions 1949, & reprinted zillions of times afterward).

There are two further appendices: TS Eliot's original introduction to the 1928 Faber Selected Poems, and John Berryman's rejected introduction to the New Directions 1949 volume (later published in Partisan Review). It's the Berryman that's the real surprise for me here. I confess to not knowing Berryman's criticism at all except by reputation – and we all know how reliable reputation can be. But this piece is chock-full of nutty goodness, critical insights falling like dew. Here's my favorite: In discussing the "distance" with which Pound treats his subject, Berryman singles out among its causes Pound's
unfailing, encyclopedic mastery of tone – a mastery that compensates for a comparative weakness of syntax. (By instinct, I parenthesize, Pound has always minimized the importance of syntax, and this instict perhaps accounts for his inveterate dislike of Milton, a dislike that has had broad consequences for three decades of the twentieth century; not only did Milton seem to him, perhaps, anti-romantic and anti-realistic, undetailed, and anti-conversational, but Milton is the supreme English master of syntax.)
Could this be phrased any better?
On a lighter note, I've just finished Alun R. Jones's The Life and Opinions of T. E. Hulme (Victor Gollanz/Beacon, 1960), a book which proves that even fifty years ago an English academic (U of Hull) could publish, with a well-regarded pair of publishing houses, a perfectly ill-written book. But there's this grand titbit, part of a chapter enticingly titled "Hulme and Women":
Hulme, sitting at a table in the Café Royal talking to his friends, suddenly looked at his watch and strode from the building with the remark, "I've a pressing engagement in five minutes' time." In twenty minutes, he had returned wiping his brow and complaining that the steel staircase of the emergency exit at the Piccadilly Circus Tube Station was the most uncomfortable place in which he had ever copulated.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

the death of literary history

Just arrived in the mail today, a book that might well serve as doorstop: Helen Carr's The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and Imagism. It's an enormous tome, almost 1000 beautifully bound and printed pages. Of course I haven't really started reading it yet – I've dipped around in it, read the first few pages, examined its notes and list of works frequently cited. And it looks very good indeed – the sort of book with which one might while away a couple of obsessive reading weeks.

I heard about this book from David Need while I was in Louisville a couple of weeks back, hanging out with the poets and critics. He was enthusiastic. I was, on the other hand, surprised. Why hadn't I heard of this book, this comprehensively detailed, loving history of the men & women of 1914? It had been reviewed in the Guardian, in the Independent, in the London Review of Books (that last by none other than Ange Mlinko). The Verse Revolutionaries was published in 2009, the year before last, & I'd never heard of the book's existence, much less seen a copy.

Here's why: it's published by Jonathan Cape, a fine English press (founded 1919, now alas a part of Random House) with some significant association with LZ and the avant-garde. And it has yet to find an American publisher. My own copy came by way of one of those Amazon "marketplace" sellers, not thru the regular bookselling channels. By all accounts, this book is a fantasticaly detailed group biography, something like a definitive literary history of the Imagist movement from that moment in 1912 when Ezra Pound wrote "H. D. Imagiste" at the foot of one of Hilda Doolittle's poems, to its bifurcation into an Amy Lowell-dominated brand-name, on the one hand, and Pound's & Wyndham Lewis's torqued-up "Vorticism" on the other. And it has yet to find an American publisher.

I'm inclined to mourn the death of literary history as a genre in the US these days. Literary criticism is more or less alive, and literary theory flourishes as always. Even basic literary scholarship is getting done, to standards that would have pleased Fredson Bowers or Ernst Curtius. But there seems to be less and less of old-fashioned, intelligent literary history, attempts to make global sense of the social and personal evolution of the literary field. David Perkins's History of Modern Poetry, maybe the most ambitious attempt in the field in the last few decades is a set of loosely strung together potted biographies. Even the works which advertise themselves as "literary history" tend to end up as more or less interconnected essays – cf. the otherwise fine work by Frank Lentricchia and Robert von Hallberg on 20th century poetry in the Cambridge History of American Literature.

Well, that does it – if Helen Carr can't get her book on the Imagists published in the US, then I'm definitely not going to attempt a 750-page history of the Objectivists, or the chatty, anecdote-filled-but-seeded-with-keen-insights definitive history of post-war experimental poetry. Sorry, folks. It's back to Ruskin, Modern Painters volume 4.

Monday, March 07, 2011


It seems like yesterday, though it was actually half a year ago, that I rejoiced in this here blog-space at reaching the halfway point of Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles. At the time I'd been working on this 42-poem sequence for a couple of years. Well, I seem to have picked up steam over the last few months, & earlier this evening I drafted the last of them. So the sequence, at least in draft form, is complete, from #1, "Blood Is Thin," to #42, "Gob of Spit." I've been contemplating some prose around the project:
I began with a vast admiration for the music produced by John Zorn's Naked City ensemble – for the record, Zorn on sax, Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, & Yamatsuka Eye (sometimes) on vocals. The band, like so many of Zorn's projects, was the unholy marriage of beloved genres – in this case noir film music, jazz, surf music, and hardcore thrash.

On one of my stays in Austin, Texas to research the LZ biography, I picked up a copy of the band's double-CD set Black Box. One disk was the half-hour, endlessly deferred volcanic noise ejaculation Leng Tch'e; the other was Torture Garden, a collection of 42 hardcore "miniatures," brief explosions of tightly controlled noise, genre-zagging bursts none of which clocked in over 1.18 (one of which is a mere 11 seconds). I listened to Torture Garden over & over, & more & more it struck me that these pieces appealed to me as models for poems: short, tightly controlled, aggressive, free of all padding & discursive structure.

The form at which I arrived for these "pastorelles" was what I think of as an "emaciated" sonnet – 7 lines to the sonnet's 14. The 5-words line is obviously borrowed from LZ's late work, "A"-21, "A"-22 & -23, and 80 Flowers. The poems make great & entirely unsystematic use of found language, usually from whatever I was reading at the moment, tho often from what I was (half) listening to: at least one derives from the simultaneously earnest, enraging, & inane discourse of a department meeting, & there are a run of pastorelles "dedicated" to various people whose talks & readings I've attended – not necessarily as gestures of admiration or affection (tho I'd stipulate that I do admire & like most of them) but because I've stolen their language.

The pastorelles are not meant in any measure to mime or reproduce the sea of interfering & overlapping discourse in which we swim, nor to provide some shorthand rendition of contemporary attention-deficit-disorder. They are as carefully composed as I could compose them. I did not want mere noise, but controlled noise.
Here's a recent example:
37. Obeah Man (for Peter O'Leary)

Stand up a brave attempt
construing possession and commentary random
meeting stand up in Gaza
holographic paradigm to scatter construe
intermediary mouthpiece imperative prisms skins
shamelesssly faunted the aria the
apse the ribcage fitful broken.
Strikes me these 42 nuggets would make a dandy chapbook, no?

Friday, March 04, 2011


So yes, I'm now officially on Spring Break. Which, for those of you who get their impressions of what a university professor does from Fox News or other organs of the right-wing propaganda machine, does not involve cocktails and brandy snifters, much movie-watching on the Barcalounger, and lots of beach time, but rather involves frantic catching up with all of the job- and career-related responsibilities which the teaching week doesn't seem to afford enough hours to manage.

I'm resisting the impulse to do what a couple of far- and near-flung colleagues have done lately – that is, to chronicle hour-by-hour what a university teacher does, and how a 40-hour week is a kind of joke with us: you can see them doing it here and here. But I've begun today by drafting most of a book review; it'll be done by tonight, & e-mailed off. This weekend I'll do revisions on a major essay, & with luck get that off by Sunday night. Over the week proper I'll read the books for and begin working on three more book reviews, I'll go in to campus (argh!) and read the files for this semester's applicants to our graduate programs, and I'll give a whole bunch of hours' attention to a major overhaul of a college-wide graduate program. That means a lot of number-crunching, collating of documents, and from-the-ground-up proposal writing. And of course I'll be reading ahead for my classes – the second half of the Odyssey, some Virginia Woolf essays, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. (Okay, I admit it, that last bit doesn't really seem like work, but rather something I should be paying to State of Florida to be allowed to do...)
After a longish chat with some graduate students at the pub, I got to thinking about what the academy, & perhaps pobiz in general, has a tendency to do to some perceptions of literature. Some background first: I've been thinking about writing for quite a long time in a larger sociological context, in terms of fields of production, cultural capital, & all that Bourdieuvian jazz. On the page, it all seems very academic, but when you immerse yourself in the poetry blogosphere, and especially in the webs of the poetic corners of Facebook (where I get maybe 8 or 10 invitations to readings and announcements of new books – please buy me! please buy me!) every week, the degree to which poetry is written in the context of a literary marketplace becomes very clear indeed. And one begins to think that this stuff is what really matters.

And then my Sitemeter showed that this blog had gotten a substantial "bump" last week. A big bump even bigger than the usual "Silliman Bump," when Ron links you on his blog & your traffic goes thru the roof. It turns out that one of my posts – on John Ruskin and Victorian pubic hair, of all things – had been linked on Facebook by a Steampunk site, Parliament & Wake. Yes, a good steampunk site, an interesting steampunk site, but by no means the largest or most popular steampunk site. (Remind me sometime to post my steampunk thoughts, prompted by my observation of steampunkers [steampunkies? steampunkistas?] as among the more well-represented subcultures at the Renaissance Fair a couple weeks ago.) & I thought to myself: my word; if Parliament & Wake has more linking power than Ron Silliman (by far the most visited poetry blog around), then poetry really has become a small subculture within our larger culture as a whole. (Quick stats from FB: Lorine Niedecker fans: 511; LZ fans: 420; Jack Spicer fans: 581; Billy Collins fans: 5345; Sonic Youth fans: 400,000; BeyoncĂ© fans: 16,700,000.)

What then keeps me with poetry, I thought in a rare moment of introspection? It can't be the meager cultural capital (and wages) I'm drawing at the university. Have I lost sight, for a moment at least, of the power & force of poetry at its best?

So part of what I aim to do over this break, in between juggling the plates of my official responsibilities, is to refresh myself with some concentrated poetry reading. Last night I read – or rather, read & looked at – Susan Howe's Bollingen-winning That This. Today I've spent some time with Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Drafts, and in a few days I'm looking forward to diving into Carolyn Bergvall's Meddle English. The sun is shining, & I'm ready to get back into the swim.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Macaulay's Boswell's Johnson

Any biographer will tell you that the real bummer about reviews of biographies is that reviewers almost never pay attention to the book at hand – the care you've lavished on research, on interpretation, on careful & thoughtful structuring; instead, they spent their time talking about the subject of the biography. That's certainly true of The Poem of a Life: of the four most prominent reviews the thing got, I'd estimate there were maybe two paragraphs total which paid more attention to the book I'd written than to LZ's life & career. Two reviewers said I'd done a nifty job; another said that I'd been thorough & careful, but still hadn't got to the quintessential LZ; and one (may he rot in hell), thoroughly despising LZ from the get-go, dismissed my own endless labors as a dull slog.

It's true that Thomas Babington Macaulay's review of John Croker's edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, in The Edinburgh Review in 1831, spends more time on Dr. J than it does on either Boswell or Croker, his editor. But then again, Macaulay's got lots of time – the review spreads out over 25 closely spaced pages in my printout. Those were the days, when both reviewers and readers of reviews had serious stamina.

Cut to the chase: this is one of the best bad reviews I've ever read. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, has some serious bones to pick with the Tory Croker, who'd apparently bested him in Parliamentary debate. The first long stretch of the review is an absolutely withering dismissal of Croker's edition: its annotations are rife with factual errors; Croker is a dunce when it comes to translating schoolboy Latin; and Croker, when writing his notes, doesn't recognize the difference between a point that needs elucidating and something everyone finds obvious. Croker's notes
remind us of nothing so much as of those profound and interesting annotations which are pencilled by sempstresses and apothecaries' boys on the dog-eared margins of novels borrowed from circulating libraries; "How beautiful!" "Cursed prosy!" "I don't like Sir Reginald Malcolm at all." "I think Pelham is a sad dandy."
More crucially, Croker's edition of Boswell is the first of the "complete" Boswells: he has supplemented the original volumes of the Life not merely with the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (which was after all something of a dry run for the biography as a whole, & to which Boswell refers his readers in the text of the Life), but with long passages from other contemporary biographies of Johnson – Sir John Hawkins's, Hester Piozzi's (Mrs. Thrale). And this Macaulay simply can't abide:
An editor might as well publish Thucydides with extracts from Diodorus interspersed, or incorporate the Lives of Suetonius the History and Annals of Tacitus.
The final long stretch, in which Macaulay looks back at Johnson's writings from a half-century's distance, is very interesting indeed (if it exemplifies the reviewer's trap I mentioned earlier, focusing on the subject rather than the book itself). Macaulay is the beginning of the tradition of regarding the figure of Johnson, as embodied in Boswell's Life, as far more interesting & important than Johnson's own writings. But his dismissal isn't by any means offhanded, but is based on a close and canny knowledge of Johnson's works, and the very real limitations of those works. Johnson, it would seem, is in the final analysis simply better suited to be a 19th-century Englishman in his conversation (recorded so assiduously by Boswell) than in his writings, which are fenced in by all sorts of 18th-century conventions. Macaulay is particularly good on Johnson's criticism; his judgments
are the judgments of a strong but enslaved understanding. The mind of the critic was hedged round by an uninterrupted fence of prejudices and superstitions. Within his narrow limits, he displayed a vigour and an activity which ought to have enabled him to clear the barrier that confined him.
The middle section of Macaulay's review, his assessment of Boswell and Boswell's book, is justly famous (& was terrifically influential for many decades, until the discovery of Boswell's vast archive of papers & the reconstruction of his really quite systematic working methods). The short version: Boswell was a boob, a toad-eater, a sycophant, a hero-worshipper who had almost no self-understanding or proper self-regard; therefore (with the strong assistance of his retentive memory and obsessive note-taking) he was the perfect biographer, and his book has never been matched in its genre.
Many of the greatest men that ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived, and he has beaten them all.
I think I'm most fascinated, however, by a long passage towards the middle of the review in which Macaulay delves into the literary sociology of Johnson's career. In his account, Johnson came of age at a moment when the patronage economy of literature was in sharp decline, and there was as yet no substantial, dependable literary market economy in place: the moment of "Grub Street," in short. It's all better now, Macaulay assures us: now a truly talented writer is assured of gaining a decent living among the publishing houses of 1831. But Johnson entered the literary marketplace at a particularly tenuous moment, and everything about him – his insistence that no one except a "blockhead" ever wrote except for money, his slovenly habits, his rapacious appetite at table – were shaped by that early experience of living hand to mouth.

Like Richard Holmes in his luminous Dr Johnson & Mr Savage, Macaulay sees the impecunious poet Richard Savage as Johnson's ur-influence: or as the cautionary tale that would loom over his writing life. Savage spent his brief life trying to make ends meet by high means and low; and he found himself caught between the decline of the patronage economy – which he courted, with mixed success – and the rise of the market economy – which he as well entered, with similarly mixed success. Johnson had to choose between the two, and in the end, he cast his lot with the marketplace, as is most famously marked in his letter to Lord Chesterfield, when the nobleman (who'd ignored Johnson's earlier overtures for support) posed himself as a patron for the just-finished Dictionary:
Seven years, my lord, have now past since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. . . . Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.
The Dictionary defines "patron" as "One who countenances, supports, or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery."